Time to stop using the pandemic as an excuse for poor service - Andrew Vine

Every Tuesday

Picture: Steve Riding.

IT has taken me six phone calls, five emails and finally a four-mile drive to a bank branch to complete a simple task, and it’s all down to Covid.

Life generally is making a heartening return to something like normality, but when it comes to customer service, it feels like we’re still stuck in the darkest days of last year.

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From banks to insurance companies, energy suppliers to garages, companies are hiding behind the pandemic as an excuse for simply not doing the jobs that customers need them to do because there are insufficient staff on hand.

My simple wish to close a bank account ended up sprawling across most of a week, as emails went unanswered or received automated replies and time ticked away holding for call centre

staff who were then unable to complete the task because somebody else was not in the office.

Every email and call was greeted with the warning that “because of Covid-19” there were staffing issues.

I only managed to close the account when I was finally let into a branch – one customer at a time allowed – and a friendly, efficient member of staff sorted it in moments.

It isn’t just banks.

When I enquired of my energy supplier why I’d had an estimated quarterly bill instead of one based on an accurate reading from the smart meter installed by them, I was told it was “because of Covid”. How can that be, when meter readings are taken and the bills based on them sent out without either going anywhere near a human being? It was an absurd excuse to offer.

A query about my household insurance that should have been answered in minutes became yet another slog because, as a weary-sounding employee eventually admitted, everyone was working from home and customer enquiries were getting overlooked.

None of this is the fault of frontline staff, whether in a bank branch or call centre – or more likely still at home, trying to make a system work remotely.

It is the fault of organisations that are running scared of getting people back into offices and making businesses operate as they should, for the benefit of customers, which let’s not forget are their living. This shouldn’t be happening any more.

It was understandable a year ago, when the pandemic had the country off balance and vast numbers of people were working from home because that was the only way of ensuring the virus would not spread through offices.

Then, the public tolerated patchy service because we were in unknown territory with companies scrambling to keep their operations running, but I can’t be alone in finding it frustrating now.

With the majority of adults vaccinated and rates of illness and hospitalisations a fraction of what they were, there is no excuse for organisations behaving like they are under siege.

Besides, with a year-and-a-half of coping with the pandemic under our belts, companies that have decided to change working patterns so that employees are only in the office for part of the week should have adapted their systems so that customer service operates properly.

The next week ought to see a concerted drive towards making this happen.

The last bank holiday of the summer is behind us, and the schools will be returning within days to far fewer restrictions than before they broke up.

This traditionally is the time of year when the country gets back to business after the summer break, and it represents an ideal moment to throw off the shackles on normal life. That means getting workplaces up and running again, not only for the sake of customers, but to help town and city centres come back to life.

If the public can shop, dine out, go to cinemas or theatres, and attend mass gatherings such as football matches, last month’s Great Yorkshire Show, or the weekend’s Leeds Festival without worrying about being stuck down by illness, then it has every right to expect that the companies it depends on for essential services are adopting a similar attitude to getting on with life as normal.

The economy is not going to recover unless businesses stop cringing in fear at the prospect of reopening fully and bringing people back into offices.

Whether we like it or not, everyone is obliged to do increasing amounts of their business either online or via call centres, and customers are being let down by poor service that uses Covid as an excuse.

If teachers and shopworkers, amongst others, are prepared to make life as normal as possible, then there is every reason to expect those working in the service industries to do likewise.

And there is another reason for doing so beyond looking after customers.

It will be good for staff and the firms they work for, by making them realise that the worst of this pandemic is behind us.